Sunday 27 October 2013

Mount Tamalpais and Point Reyes National Seashore, San Francisco, Oct 2013

I rather lost my centre of attention today by lingering too long on the Marin Headlands trying to get a nice shot of the Golden Gate Bridge. Clouds rushing in from the sea had obscured its lower half and that same mist completely blanked out Rodeo Lagoon which was to have been my focus. A few White-crowned Sparrows called through the fog and a California Quail flushed from the roadside. At the Visitor Center, a couple of California Towhees were obscured from just a few feet away.

Instead I headed north, towards Point Reyes National Seashore. Once away from the immediate vicinity of the coast, the fog thinned very quickly and after a short climb to the top of Mount Tamalpais, I was in glorious sunshine, but the city in the distance was still misted.

I stopped at a pull in on Pan Toll Road (Google Earth ref; 37 54 22.78N 122 36 52.77W) and took a short walk through the small copse and along the ridge.

Dark-eyed Juncos and Golden-crowned Sparrows were common here and a Western Bluebird perched on a rock, silhouetted against the white background.

Acorn Woodpeckers had staked their claim to a tree here by ramming it full of acorns and a Hutton’s Vireo showed for a moment in the oaks. 

The Visitor Center at Point Reyes lies right on the San Andreas Fault line and has a hypnotic monitor with a scratchy needle that shows tiny movements as the ground shivers below your feet. A Black-tailed Deer nervously watched as I came into the car park.

A quick walk around the outside brought some Yellow-rumped Warblers and Western Scrub Jays as well as more Golden-crowned Sparrows, Western Bluebirds and Acorn Woodpeckers.

I couldn’t decide whether the Life Saving Station should adopt a more positive approach to their work or if the sign could do with some punctuation.

Out on the peninsula the fog closed in again and the surroundings took on the air of the moors around Skyfall. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see Dame Judy Dench through a break in the rolling mist, doing a runner up the slope.

Turkey Vultures, American Kestrels and Red-tailed Hawks were very common today and I was hoping to get back to the Marin Headlands later in the afternoon to visit Hawk Hill. As you must know by now, my attention span is limited and I became knocked off plan by a beachful of Elephant Seals to the north of Fish Dock. They can easily be seen if you zoom right in at Google Earth ref; 37 59 53.88N 122 58 59.83W. There were a few young males testing their strength against each other in the shallows, but the big males may have been on the ocean side of the peninsular, or out to sea.

The high cliffs on the seaward side of the peninsula protected Drakes Bay from the clouds being blown in from the ocean and the path leading down to the Elephant Seal overlook afforded a fine view across the water. Common Loon and Pacific Loon were seen out there and a Common Murre was fishing close in. Surf Scoter and a couple of Bufflehead could also be seen, but the Elephant Seals provided the best value for money. A pair of Common Seals stayed out of their way in a small patch of weed. They looked a little concerned, but then, don’t they always?

I couldn’t see the Great Horned Owl that is often reported from the cedar trees near the car park at Fish Docks, but was lucky enough to spot 4 people with binoculars trained up into the trees by Mendoza Ranch I stopped and learned that they had found the owl that is often seen at this location.
Birds seen; 62
American Wigeon 250, Mallard 7, Northern Shoveler 6, Northern Pintail 100, Surf Scoter 20, Bufflehead 2, Ruddy Duck 12, California Quail 25, Wild Turkey 7, Pacific Loon 4, Common Loon 2, Eared Grebe 2, Double-crested Cormorant 20, Pelagic Cormorant 1, Brown Pelican 15, Great Blue heron 2, Great Egret 1, Snowy Egret 3, Turkey Vulture 20, Northern Harrier 1, Cooper’s Hawk 2, Sharp-tailed Hawk 1, Red-tailed Hawk 13, American Kestrel 8, American Coot 20, Black-bellied Plover 1, Kildeer 3, Black-necked Stilt 6, American Avocet 25, Willet 4, Long-billed Curlew 1, Marbled Godwit 215, Least Sandpiper 2, Long-billed Dowitcher 2, Ring-billed Gull 3, Western Gull 3, California Gull 18, Common Murre 1, Mourning Dove 17, Great Horned Owl 1, Belted Kingfisher 1, Acorn Woodpecker 8, Black Phoebe 1, Say’s Phoebe 1, Hutton’s Vireo 1, Western Scrubjay 12, American Crow 7, Common Raven 4, Western Bluebird 6, European Starling 20, Yellow-rumped Warbler 2, Chipping Sparrow 1, Savannah Sparrow 1, Song Sparrow 2, White-crowned Sparrow 6, Golden-crowned Sparrow 41, Dark-eyed Junco 24, Red-winged Blackbird 150, Western Meadowlark 8, Brewer’s Blackbird 40, House Finch 2, American Goldfinch 1.

List also includes birds seen at Bodega Lagoon and a quick stop on the bay in the failing light as I returned the car to the airport.

If you visit the Marin Headlands by car, remember that there is a toll on the Golden Gate Bridge for the crossing back into the city. There is no facility to pay cash as you cross the bridge and you must pay the toll by visiting It is possible to pay after the crossing, provided that you do it within 48 hours. See information at

It may be most convenient to pay the toll at any number of convenience stores in the city (Walgreen’s, Costco, Safeway).

Rental car firms may have a system whereby they can pay the tolls and you reimburse them with an added convenience fee.

You must enquire about this when you pick up the car and either opt-in or opt out.

Tuesday 22 October 2013

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, Oct 2013

Getting good pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge is not as easy as it looks. I think the secret is to be in the right place at the right time and to mess about with the camera’s buttons a bit.

Oh, and use a tripod!

Sea mists often cloud the coast at this time of year but the headlands protect the bay where it is usually far brighter.

It's amazing how much time you can find to muck about with photo-editing software as exams approach!

This morning, a full moon reflected off the clouds that blanketed the lower half of the bridge, yet the city was completely clear. The blue effect in this shot was stumbled across (I nearly said “achieved”, as if it was done on purpose) by selecting a very cold setting on the temperature white balance setting.

I am easily distracted and spent far too much time on the Marin Headlands (Google Earth ref;37 49 41.24N 122 29 51.91W ) trying different settings, lenses and experimenting with white balances in an attempt to get the shot. Live View is a great help as it shows you what the result is likely to be. 

If you visit the Marin Headlands by car, remember that there is a toll on the bridge for the crossing into the city. There is no facility to pay cash as you cross the bridge and you must pay the toll by visiting
It is possible to pay after the crossing, provided that you do it within 48 hours. See information at

It may be most convenient to pay the toll at any number of convenience stores in the city (Walgreen’s, Costco, Safeway). Have your car licence plate number to hand.

Rental car firms may have a system whereby they can pay the tolls and you reimburse them with an added convenience fee.
You must enquire about this when you pick up the car and either opt-in or opt out. 

Monday 14 October 2013

New York, New York, Oct 2013

This week I was in New York and was able to make a couple of visits to Central Park. I walked as far as the Ramble from both directions, so between the two outings, covered the full fifty block length.

We arrived in the afternoon and I walked in from 60th St., taking a quick look at The Pond where a Great Blue Heron hunted at the top end. I went out onto the bridge to get a better look and noticed a Northern Waterthrush on the other side, bobbing along at the edge of the water. Waterthrushes have always eluded me, so I took up a position on the bank and waited for it to come closer. Even as it came closer, most of the pictures were blurred by the quick movement of the bird and the slow shutter speeds (ISO 1250) on a gloomy afternoon.

Grey Catbirds and American Robins appeared to be gorging themselves from the berries in every fruiting tree.

I stopped at Falconer’s Hill for a short while as this is often a productive spot. Sure enough, the warblers started coming as I waited. A Black and White Warbler scuttled around the trunk of a tree while a Palm Warbler pumped its tail as it strutted along by the rocks.

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets and an Eastern Phoebe were all seen here too before an unseen something put them all to flight.
As I crossed the road towards the pond a small, fast, falcon zipped up towards the rocks. This must have been my first Merlin for Central Park.

The low weeds along the edge of the boating lake quivered to the movements of a Common Yellowthroat and a quick pish brought it up for a look-see.

The evening was running thin now and I moved quickly through The Ramble to The Oven, where a juvenile Rose-breasted Grosbeak appeared momentarily and a Northern Parula teased me with tantalising peeks from the top of a tree. There was just enough light left to catch a couple of Brown Thrashers and two female Black-throated Blue Warblers in Maintenance Meadow. 

The dim light under the trees would not allow me to get a shot of two Ovenbirds that skipped across the path by the feeders. A Grey Catbird was only caught by using the TV setting and demanding a faster shutter speed.

The next morning, I caught the bus to 110th St. and began to work my way south from Harlem Mere. A brisk breeze was blowing from downtown and I wondered if it would be enough to bring any warblers down for a rest. The ducks were looking relaxed on the mere with plenty of Mallards as well as Gadwall, some Northern Shoveler and a couple of Ruddy Duck.

A couple of Palm Warblers were seen on the weather side of The Fort and the breeze really freshened as I looked out across the Mere from my elevated position. A storm (Karen) had been working its way towards New York, but had veered out to sea the day before. I guess the low cloud and wind were a result of this weather feature.

A small island in The Mere looked very promising. Activity there came from Grey Catbirds, Palm Warblers and Yellow-rumped Warblers. I was really looking forward to getting into the North Woods and The Ravine area as it had looked very birdy on my last visit and this morning had started well. I was leaving it until the light improved, but by 08.00, it was still horribly dull and I had a lot of ground to cover. It proved disappointing with only an American Redstart to add to the warbler count, but on the bright side, a Winter Wren and a Swamp Sparrow popped out from the moist edges of the stream.

The berry trees were still proving very popular with American Robins, Grey Catbirds and European Starlings. The trees around Turtle Pond and Shakespeare Garden were full of birds.

Northern Cardinals and Brown Thrashers in Maintenance Meadow were joined by an Eastern Phoebe and the first birder that I had seen all day. Where have all the birders gone? Yesterday was a Sunday evening and none were seen at all!

One of the Ovenbirds was still hanging around by the feeders, but stayed deep in the weeds.

Rain had been trying to fall for the last hour or so and eventually became more persistent. It was time to go home anyway, so I decided on a quick look along The Spit before heading out. Some Ruby-crowned Kinglets were seen in the low bushes at the start of the path and a Tennessee Warbler finished out my list for the day.

The list below is a combined list for the two visits.

Birds seen; 53

Canada Goose 18, Wood Duck 2, Gadwall 20, Mallard 110, Northern Shoveler 6, Ruddy Duck 2, Double-crested Cormorant 60, Great Blue Heron 3, Red-tailed Hawk 3, Merlin 1, Ring-billed Gull 25, Herring Gull 15, Great Black-billed Gull 20, Mourning Dove 40, Chimney Swift 30, Red-bellied Woodpecker 1, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 8, Downy Woodpecker 3, Northern Flicker 4, Eastern Phoebe 2, Blue Jay 16, American Crow 35, Winter Wren 1, Ruby-crowned Kinglet 16, Swainson’s Thrush 4, Wood Thrush 8, American Robin 90, Grey Catbird 20, Northern Mockingbird 1, Brown Thrasher 5, European Starling 100, Cedar Waxwing 22, Ovenbird 2, Northern Waterthrush 1, Black and White Warbler 5, Tennessee Warbler 1, Common Yellowthroat 2, American Redstart 1, Northern Parula 3, Blackpoll Warbler 2, Black-throated Blue Warbler 2, Palm Warbler 5, Yellow-rumped Warbler 2, Eastern Towhee 5, Song Sparrow 5, Swamp Sparrow 1, White-throated Sparrow 85, Dark-eyed Junco 1, Northern Cardinal 6, Rose-breasted Grosbeak 1, Common Grackle 35, Brown-headed Cowbird 4, House Sparrow 80

See the links below for more posts from Central Park;

Visit the dedicated USA and Canada Page for more posts from New York including Jamaica Bay

Saturday 12 October 2013

Mount Auburn Cemetery, Boston, Oct 2013

Mount Auburn Cemetery was looking exquisite today. A blush of autumn colour complimented a slight chill in the early morning air. It could have been perfect were it not for the grass-cutting and hedge-shredding that seemed to go on all day. I guess it is necessary to keep the cemetery from getting overgrown, but in surroundings that would otherwise have been so tranquil and calm, it seemed like a terrible intrusion. After reminding myself that I was in fact the intruder, I set off along the ridge that starts to the left of the gate.

I was hoping to find “birds of passage”, flying south seeking “warmer climes” and coincidentally found the first Blackpoll Warbler by Wordsworth’s tomb. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker drilled into a juicy trunk and an American Robin sat for an autumnally themed picture.

A stand of Rhododendron bushes on a slope by Auburn Lake held Common Yellowthroat and White-throated Sparrows. A Great Blue Heron had caught a frog and was trying to swallow it. The frog was still kicking. I took one picture and moved on, a little squeamish.

The Northern Cardinals looked a little tatty today so the less seen of them amongst the leaves, the better.

A Yew bush and taller adjacent tree provided some exciting warbler watching and I spent half an hour with Betsy Neagles (1787 – 1871), trying to get a fix on the south-bound plumage. I had come without a field guide. Someone please tell me why I would do that in fall warbler season?

Actually, these ones were easy enough with Black and White Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Black-throated Green Warbler and Blackpoll Warbler. I should have thought to bring a guide though, in case of anything a bit more tricky.

I had seen the Red-tailed Hawks a number of times today, but suspect that it was the same juvenile bird each time. It allowed me a close look as it landed on a horizontal branch before flying across to the gravestone of Walter Scott Fitz and alighting there.
Rain had been threatening all morning and eventually the clouds could hold it no longer and let it all out in a rush. 

The shower was heavy, but short-lived, but by this time  I had made the decision to head home. A small flock of Golden-crowned Kinglets with a couple of Ruby-crowned Kinglets and a Red-eyed Vireo stopped me for a short damp moment on the way out.

Birds seen; 33

Wild Turkey 1, Great Blue Heron 5, Red-tailed Hawk 2, Herring Gull 4, Mourning Dove 1, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 1, Downy Woodpecker 6, Northern Flicker 5, Red-eyed Vireo 4, Blue Jay 20, Black-caped Chickadee 10, Tufted Titmouse 3, Red-breasted Nuthatch 2, White-breasted Nuthatch 6, Brown Creeper 1, Carolina Wren 1, Golden-crowned Kinglet 15, Ruby-crowned Kinglet 2, Hermit Thrush 1, American Robin 120, Grey Catbird 1, European Starling 40, Black and White Warbler 5, Common Yellowthroat 3, Blackpoll Warbler 8, Yellow-rumped Warbler 8, Black-throated Green Warbler 2, Song Sparrow 2, Swamp Sparrow 2, White-throated Sparrow 8, Northern Cardinal 8, Common Grackle 30, Brown-headed Cowbird 20

Harvard Square Station is on the Red Line of the subway, heading out of Boston towards Alewife. Bus nos. 71 and 73 leave from the station and take less than 10 minutes to reach the cemetery. There is a stop close to the cemetery gates and between them there should be a bus twice every 15 minutes.

For previous posts from Mount Auburn, see the links below;

Friday 11 October 2013

Back Bay Fens, Boston, October 2013

Boston’s famed fall spectacle was underway on this first week of October at Back Bay fens. The show has not yet reached its peak, but there were plenty of colours to enjoy on a breezy evening. It was a busy time with local students heading home, climbing trees and smoking amongst the bushes. Even with a brisk breeze, the atmosphere was filled with pungent smoke and made for a very relaxing walk. 

I was hoping to find a few wood warblers heading south and a couple of Blackpoll Warblers brought a feeling of anticipation and livened me up a bit.

A hot spot by the lake brought more Blackpoll Warblers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Downy Woodpecker and an autumnal Wood Thrush.

Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice and Red-eyed Vireo were seen in the trees down by the sports area with American Black Duck and a Great Blue Heron on the water. 

Birds seen; 21

Canada Goose 200, American Black Duck 30, Mallard 80, Great Blue Heron 2, Herring Gull 5, Downy Woodpecker 2, Red-eyed Vireo 1, Blue Jay 12, Black-capped Chickadee 3, Tufted Titmouse 5, Hermit Thrush 1, Wood Thrush 1, American Robin 7, Northern Mockingbird 3, European Starling 2, Blackpoll Warbler 6, Yellow-rumped Warbler 2, Swamp Sparrow 1, Red-winged Blackbird 1, Common Grackle 4, Brown-headed Cowbird 3.

You can find more posts from Boston Back Bay Fens at the links below;

Visit the dedicated USA and Canada page for more posts from Boston including, Whale-watching, Mount Auburn and Pleasure Bay.

Wednesday 9 October 2013

Busy Times

Busy times at home have been keeping me away from the blog. In case you thought that I had given up on it, here are a couple of shots from recent outings.

The Great Crested Grebe and the Migrant Hawker were from a visit to Monk Lakes.

The Chiffchaffs passed through the Silver Birch in my neighbours’ garden.


Saturday 5 October 2013

Riparian Reserve at Gilbert Water Ranch, Phoenix, AZ, Sept 2013

eBird has unveiled its new feature, the Hotspot Explorer. And what a wonderful feature it is for anyone venturing beyond their own back yard. It shows birding hotspots on a map-based interface and colour-codes the sites to show how productive they can be.
In preparation for a trip to Phoenix, I took a quick look at my normal stomping grounds there. The familiar sites showed as cool blue or tepid yellow flags on the map, but one site was glowing orange, vying for attention. I was shocked to find that the hottest spot in Phoenix was just a step away from where we stay and I was previously unaware of its existence. The Riparian Reserve at Gilbert Water Ranch can be seen at Google Earth ref; 33 21 51.87N 111 44 5.27W. I was not able to paste the name or coordinates into the Hotspot Explorer search box, but once this minor oversight is bested, Google Earth may become dispensable!

The Riparian Reserve shares a large block with the Gilbert’s Southeast Regional Library, a small astronomical observatory and a fishing lake. The gates are probably closed overnight, but were open early this morning. There is enough habitat around the fishing lake and observatory to keep birders busy if the gate-keeper is late.

I arrived by 06.30 and was greeted by a Northern Mockingbird. I slowly worked my way to the gate, noting McGillivray’s Warbler, Black-throated Gray Warbler and Belted Kingfisher near the observatory. What passes for a ploughed field in any other part of the world is called a lake in Phoenix. 

The appearance of the reserve on Google Earth and the map of the site were at odds to my experience in the second week of September. Pond 7 had shrunk to a tiny crescent. A Green Heron watched from the edge and a Neotropical Cormorant roosted a bit further back.

Pond 6 was similarly reduced to a smear of its former self. Greater Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpiper and Killdeer stalked the margins while a trio of Mallard popped down to the water’s edge for a drink.

 In Pond 5, the water had given way to meadow. It looked as though it might be wet underfoot, but not too squishy to put off a couple of Coyotes that were making their early morning rounds. A small screen hide in the corner overlooked the enduring puddle in the corner where a couple of Pintail and Shoveler shared the water with the omnipresent Mallards.

A small patch of sunflowers near the screen attracted a flock of Lesser Goldfinch which allowed me my closest approach of the week.

I had found myself at the hub of the complex. With a little imagination it might be possible to picture oneself at the centre of a pinwheel with paths heading out in all directions. Ponds 1 and 2 held better concentrations of wading birds with Long-billed Dowitchers, Black-necked Stilts and Least Sandpipers.

The teals were proving a little tricky. I am not very accomplished at separating the Cinnamon Teal and Blue-winged Teal from each other. There were plenty of them around, but they were not sporting their distinctive colours, so I could only be certain about very few. A Green-winged Teal was very obliging.

Bell’s Vireo was seen quite frequently this morning. It shared the shrubs and bushes that line the banks with Abert’s Towhees and plenty of Verdins.

Say’s Phoebes and Black Phoebes shared the flycatching duties with a Gray Flycatcher. Where have they been all my life?

Birds seen;
Canada Goose 22, American Wigeon 2, Mallard 200, Northern Shoveler 8, Northern Pintail 7, Green-winged Teal 30, Pied-billed Grebe 2, Neotropic Cormorant 1, Great Egret 5, Snowy Egret 8, Green Heron 2, White-faced Ibis 4, Turkey Vulture 3, Osprey 1, Cooper’s Hawk 1, Killdeer 70, Black-necked Stilt 40, Spotted Sandpiper 2, Greater Yellowlegs 9, Western Sandpiper 1, Least Sandpiper 130, Long-billed Dowitcher 80, Eurasian Collared Dove 20, Mourning Dove 35, Inca Dove 8, Black-chinned Hummingbird 2, Anna’s Hummingbird 6, Belted Kingfisher 1, Gila Woodpecker 3, Gray Flycatcher 1, Black Phoebe 7, Say’s Phoebe 2, Bell’s Vireo 5, Barn Swallow 4, Verdin 15, Northern Mockingbird 20, Curve-billed Thrasher 12, European Starling 30,MacGillivray’s Warbler 1, Common Yellowthroat 3, Black-throated Gray Warbler 2, Wilson’s Warbler 2, Abert’s Towhee 12, Song Sparrow 2, White-crowned Sparrow 2, Red-winged Blackbird 15, Great-tailed Grackle 12, Brown-headed Cowbird 5, House Finch 6, Lesser Goldfinch 25, House Sparrow 6.

Curve-billed Thrasher 

Visit the dedicated USA and Canada page for more posts from Phoenix, including Phoenix Botanical Garden and Usery Mountain Park.